Why is poor communication popular?

A great insight in one sentence seems obvious, no matter how much of history how many people have spent not coming up with it. The same insight alluded to and digressed from for hours on end seems like a fantastic mountain of understanding. Why is this? I think Paul Gowder’s explanation for people liking bad books probably extends to partially explain:

Why do people read bad books…[and] why do so many…end up praising them? …

1. The sunk cost fallacy. You get fifty, a hundred pages into Atlas Shrugged or something and you’ve bled so much — you’ve invested so much into getting through this book, tortured yourself with so much bad writing and so many stupid ideas! How horrible would it be to waste all that effort! Better grind on and finish. Or so we tell ourselves. Because we’re irrational.

2. Cognitive dissonance. You’ve read all of Of Grammatology! Holy shit that was unpleasant…You’re not sure whether you actually learned anything enlightening, or whether old Jacques was just spitting jive. But wait! You’re a rational person! You’d be a fool if you’d spent a hundred hours and endless tears trying to make sense of that stuff and it turned out to be nonsense. Therefore, it must be very wise and you should defend it and demand others read it! Or so we tell ourselves. Because we’re irrational.

Hat tip to Mike Blume. I’ll add:

3. Less concise works can easily be designed to cheat quality heuristics.  You are always better off guessing whether a work was good or bad than admitting you didn’t understand it well and can’t remember most of it, because that does not distinguish you from the stupid people who didn’t understand or remember it because they don’t understand or remember anything. If you are going to guess, you use heuristics. Many of the same things that make writing less comprehensible also lead people to guess it is insightful: complexity, length, difficult words. If you can’t follow well enough to confidently compress it into the one sentence version you would have thought obvious, you will likely guess that it contains more than one sentence worth of interesting content.

15 responses to “Why is poor communication popular?

  1. “A great insight in one sentence seems obvious, no matter how much of history how many people have spent not coming up with it. The same insight alluded to and digressed from for hours on end seems like a fantastic mountain of understanding.”

    These are highly subjective judgments (greatness, obviousness). And it is unlikely that Gowder’s arguments actually explain why people who like Rand or Derrida do so. In considering his essay, perhaps the first order of business is actually to understand why Paul Gowder thinks “Atlas Shrugged” and “Of Grammatology” are bad books. I would suggest that he calls them bad primarily because he doesn’t like Rand’s conclusions and he doesn’t even understand Derrida’s, and his two “explanations” are designed to explain how other people manage not to arrive at the same judgments.

    • On that I’m going by common opinion, not my subjective judgments. Often people agree that something is a good insight and still say that it seems obvious now. People rave about long works which when summarised to a point nobody is that impressed by.

      Does it matter why he thinks they are bad? If he is wrong about those books, the conclusion still seems likely. Those are common human flaws, and it’s true that people seem to praise surprisingly incomprihensible writing often.

      Some evidence for a bias toward liking padded versions of writing is that books are taken more seriously than articles (and there is no medium length popular written medium). It appears that if you have an idea you want to popularize, you write a book. If the point is simple and the evidence compact, you find a lot of other things to write about it until it is long enough to be taken seriously.

    • If he doesn’t understand Derrida’s conclusions, is the fault his, or Derrida’s?

      Are the ideas in Derrida deep, profound, difficult and correct, and Gowder simply too dull to comprehend them? Or is it rather the case that Derrida’s writing is poor, that he communicates badly, that his words are unclear, and his ideas are in fact possibly incoherent?

      Maybe the fault is with the translator, but I’d be embarrassed to have written paragraph as muddled as the quoted one from On Grammatology.

      I won’t even go there with Rand.

  2. Jordan, Derrida was not writing for lay readers in another culture who know nothing about his subject. And the writing is not muddled, it’s actually quite precise, but it does require effort to parse. (Gowder’s transcript has an error or two, by the way.) Think of it as a glimpse of cultural source code. You can get the gist of its meaning from Derrida-for-dummies manuals, but the thing itself, as a scholarly polemic, has its byzantine structure partly out of technical necessity.

    Katja, I just think the issue is way more complicated than you represent it to be. In your introduction, you set up an opposition between the gemlike aphoristic insight that people take for granted, and the ponderous tome which repeats its basic message over and over and which impresses by its sheer bulk. But what you describe as “alluding to” and “digressing from” a basic insight might be regarded as putting that insight to work in numerous specific contexts. When someone writes a thousand-page book developing the implications of a new idea, the resulting book is not like Monty Python’s Book of Armaments (“Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three”), simply restating the idea over and over again.

    I think that what you say, and what Gowder says, must be at work on some occasions. But there are other effects too, and to leave them out presents a lopsided picture. For example, it may be supposed that some of the enthusiasm for Derrida comes from people who can’t tell you exactly what he’s saying, but who have glimpsed enough brilliance here and there in his writings to feel confident that his work is deep – i.e. quite the opposite of the defensive bluff that Gowder posits. And this is without even raising the question of whether Derrida is a bad writer or just a difficult one.

    Meanwhile, back in the world at large, poor communication may be tolerated for wholly other reasons, e.g. in some subjects, good communication may be so difficult and rare that most people don’t even know it exists. Perhaps a genius can hold the subject in their mind as a whole, and make learning easy through the superhuman dexterity of their own intellectual displays, but lesser minds, as teachers, can only make sure they cover the necessary territory by mechanically marching back and forth through the subject matter. “Poor communication” here would be a relative matter – what’s available, what people are willing to tolerate.

    • “Think of it as a glimpse of cultural source code.”

      Source code to what culture? I don’t think I even understand the analogy.

      But maybe that’s because I used to be a Philosophy and Mathematics major and only moonlighted in Computer Science to fill in a timetable gap.

      Anyway, I wasted enough time already in high school enduring literary critical inspired nonsense derived from Derrida and co… I’ll leave the case for the prosecution in Mr Gowder’s evidently capable hands.

  3. haha, I actually don’t remember posting that — thanks for the HT =)

  4. Mitchell, pretty much every competent philosopher thinks Derrida’s work is nonsense; the only people who endorse his work are half-trained comp. lit scholars. Even if you think the quality judgments are subjective, it matters that the subjective judgments of pretty much all the people who actually know anything agree…

    But that’s not the real point of my jumping into this thread. The real point is to highlight the “you just didn’t understand his genius” move. That’s a move that’s made available by the sheer staggering incomprehensibility of Derrida’s sort of bad work, and the possibility of this move is another thing that permits people to like it, because it permits adherents to dismiss objections as based in confusion.

    Note that you won’t hear this same kind of cult-like “you don’t like him because you don’t understand his genius” offered with respect to lucid brilliant writers (even in the postmodernist tradition, like Foucault).

    • Derrida and Foucault are not that different.

      The difficult part of Derrida, especially for analytic philosophers, is the part that derives from Husserl and Heidegger, i.e. transcendental and existential phenomenology. That’s the real subtext to all his “deconstructions”, and without it, what he’s on about will always seem a little elusive.

      • Badly warmed over Hegel and Fichte, I’m afraid.

        • I have a little more respect for you after that remark. :-) At least you have deigned to identify the genus of philosophical nonsense to which you think Derrida belongs!

          • Hah, believe it or not, I have some passing familiarity with this stuff. I’m no specialist, but I’ve actually gone so far as to publish a paper drawing on Beauvoir’s version of the Hegel/Fichte recognition thing, which is (as noted) a main vein from which all this phenomenology stuff is drawn. And I think there’s something to it — to the recognition notion, at least — just much, much, much less than everyone after H&F has tried to get out of it.

  5. Then there are numerous examples in which authors indeed distill their wise observation to a single sentence, yet still write an entire book about it. The Peter Principle comes to mind: “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence”. A brilliantly parsimonious observation that, as you say, seems obvious. Then the authors say the same thing for 192 pages. Perhaps this is one reason that math is so appealing to many intellectuals.

  6. Your explanation doesn’t explain why people who like these “bad books” usually agree on why they like them. People don’t say that they liked Atlas Shrugged because of the characters and the setting. People don’t say they liked Ulysses because of the plot.

    If people are making a basic cognitive error, it’s in calling these books “good.” I don’t think it means anything to call a book “good”.

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